Thursday, September 2, 2010

September 2: Booker T & The MG's, "Green Onions"

Artist: Booker T & The MG's
Song: "Green Onions"
Album: Green Onions
Year: 1962

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Over the long history of rock music, one of the most constant elements of a hit song is the presence of a fantastic lyric or a dynamic lead singer.  One can make the case that this is the aspect that sets rock music apart from other genres, and yet there is one group that stands in defiance to this idea in every way possible.  Perhaps only second to The Funk Brothers (and that is very debatable) when it comes to the title of "Greatest House Band Ever," there are simply not enough words in the dictionary that can provide adequate respect and accolades to the legendary group, Booker T & The MG's.  Spending more than a decade as the "house band" for Stax Records, the group can be heard backing the likes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and many other legends of the late 1950's and 1960's.  The fact that the group also released a number of singles on their own is what set them apart from their Motown rivals, and many of these singles sound their own success, further adding to the overall influence and iconic status that the group possesses to this day.  Time and time again, the group proved to be able to bring as deep and smooth a groove as any band in history, and the jazzy, yet soulful moods they injected into this formula has rarely been equaled over the decades.  Though they can be found on some of the biggest hits ever recorded, few songs can compare to their own timeless single, 1962's legendary "Green Onions."

As has been the case on a handful of occasions in history, as the legend goes, "Green Onions" came into existence as a mistake.  The story says that the quartet that are Booker T & The MG's were in Stax Studios in Memphis waiting for singer and instrumentalist Billy Lee Riley to show up for a recording session.  Riley never appeared, but while waiting, the group started jamming on a minor-key based, jazz-style riff, and the result of this jam session was "Green Onions."  Few songs so perfectly blend together so many genres in such spectacular fashion as one finds here, and every note is a testament to the amazing talents within each of the for musicians.  Led by the unforgettable organ playing of Booker T. Jones, he uses the entire musical scale to convey his emotions.  The deep, low, almost pulsing line he plays, creating the core theme on "Green Onions" stands as one of the most famous musical progressions in history, and it retains its unique power to captivate listeners more than four decades later.  This groove is transferred quickly to the bass of Lewie Steinberg, and the two play off one another in brilliant fashion.  As Steinberg "takes the bassline for a walk," Booker T dances across the keys, creating one of the greatness instrumental arrangements in history.  The fact that their performance is so brilliant, and that it was for the most part unplanned makes "Green Onions" all the more impressive and solidifies the groups place among the most elite musicians in history.

Playing alongside Booker T and Steinberg is a man who stands today as one of the greatest guitarists ever: Steve Cropper.  As the creator of some of the most beautiful guitar pieces ever recorded, there is little question that Cropper is the greatest soul-style guitar player in history, and "Green Onions" highlights many different sides of his exceptional talent.  For 1962, the tone of Steve Cropper's guitar is rather aggressive, and this is where much of the link to the early rock sound lives.  The slight reverb effect that accompanies his playing is nothing short of perfect, and few guitarists in history have shown a similar knack for understanding exactly where and when to leave "open spaces" within the music.  Bringing a slight blues to his playing, Cropper sounds just as good taking the leads as he does when he trades off with Booker T, and this presents a second amazing musical duo within the same song.  As the two navigate the jam, their intertwined playing becomes almost hypnotic, and it remains just as mesmerizing and exciting after repeated listenings as it is upon the first experience.  Providing what is undoubtedly a rock-style back-beat, drummer Al Jackson evokes the spirit of many of the groups finest moments as backing musicians (some of which hadn't been recorded yet), and he shows the final link between the rock and r&b genres.  All of "Green Onions" shows just how stunning a song can become when each musician has an uncanny level of talent, while at the same time have no problem stepping aside so each can shine on the same song.

What may have begun as frustration while waiting for a musician to arrive for a recording session ended with one of the most memorable songs in history, as today, one can hear "Green Onions" in nearly every aspect of popular culture.  The fact that the song continues to be used for advertisements, in movies, at sporting events, and a host of other places, serves as a testament to just how special a song Booker T & The MG's accidentally created.  While there is never a doubt that it is "his" band, Booker T is happy to step aside at different parts on the song to let his other three bandmates take the lead and show off their own phenomenal skills.  Though the rhythm section of Steinberg and Jackson play brilliantly, the true magic within "Green Onions" lives within the interaction between Booker T and Steve Cropper.  One can only imagine what was "left out" on the studio release of the song, and live recordings from over the decades show that the two have a musical chemistry that has rarely been equaled.  Deploying a mixture of soul, blues, jazz, and even funk, all within a rock format, there was simply nothing similar that had been recorded before "Green Onions" appeared.  This was surely much of the reason that the song shot to the top of the charts and brought the group international fame.  Though they would continue on as the house band at Stax Records, one can easily make the case that there is no finer moment in the recorded history of Booker T & The MG's than one finds within their iconic 1962 instrumental, "Green Onions."

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